- Movie Rating -

Babi Yar. Context (2022)

| April 1, 2022

The approach is sort of striking at first, if not a touch off-putting.  Babi Yar. Context sets itself apart from your standard documentary by simply giving us images, video, faces, snatches of dialogue and interspersed are helpful pieces of text so that we know where we are without gobs of commentary.  Sergei Loznitsa’s film is about a very specific event, a massive crime against humanity but there is no narration, no talking heads, only an exemplary film that connects pieces of film into a context that gives us the timeline of an atrocity.

The atrocity is one of the most gut-wrenching mass murders of innocent civilians by Nazi Troops arguably of the whole war – a title card reminds us that they were killed “without resistance from the local population.”  Over two days in September of 1941 German soldiers, members of the Sonderkommando and Police regiments with the assistance of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, took 33,771 Ukrainian Jews to the Babi Yar ravine just outside of Kyiv and murdered them by gunfire.  What occurred there, before and after, the incident is what Loznitsa has set out to reconstruct using archival film footage and arranging it in an order that tells a story, from the invasion of Kyiv, to the murders themselves, to the eventual tribunal and the execution of those responsible.

The footage is combined from film made by both German and Soviet soldiers – the Germans when they invaded the city of Kyiv in 1941 and the Soviet Army when they took it back two years later.  The two sides (most of which has not been made public) are, in this film, knitted together with a soundtrack added so that we hear the ambient noises – tanks, trucks, explosions, wind and the occasional snatch of intelligible dialogue – and get the feeling of standing on the sidelines.

As a historical record, the approach is a real curiosity.  But Loznitsa is also after something else.  He wants to capture a moment in time and he does so most effectively at the moments just before the murders take place.  Those murders mercifully never happen on screen, but what is so wrenching about the footage are the dozens of photos that Loznitsa shows us just before the shootings.  Over and over picture by picture we see Jews who are soon to be dead, sitting on the ground awaiting their turn.  The faces are what haunt us – men, women, children, young, old, all of them know their inescapable fate.  The photos are shown one right after another, we see person after person after person reminding us of the sheer volume of humanity that is about to be thrown away by the derangement of Hitler’s racial ideology.

The story presented in these images are easy to follow because no one is holding our hand.  Without a narrator (save for the title cards) we are forced to deal with these images.  Coming up to the execution, we see the devastation caused by the Nazis, burned down farms, dead bodies left in the snow, Jews being beaten and clubbed.  After the murders, the Soviet Army rolls in and takes the city back.  The Nazis themselves are rounded up and the back half of the film consists of the trial in which we hear first-hand accounts, the most striking of which is the testimony of Soviet Jewish actress Dina Pronicheva who acted fast, fell on the corpses and played dead so that the Nazis wouldn’t kill her.  She comes after the testimony of a German soldier who was ordered to carry out the executions, his face is passive and unexpressive.  He might as well be on trial for a traffic violation.

The spaces between the images are what we remember.  Often they offer no explanation because most just speak for themselves.  This is a timeline of and event that most of us are unfamiliar with.  And what may be the most striking is the way in which Loznitsa chooses to end the story.  Yes, the Nazis are found guilty.  Yes, they are executed for their crimes.  Yes, the Ukrainians are joyful.  But then . . . a construction project near the ravine – construction equipment rolls in and new buildings go up.  Life goes on.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary